John Townley and Ruth Wheelan had married in 1881 at St Mary’s Church, Stockport. By the time the 1901 Census was taken, they had five children – George (then 17), Elizabeth (16), Henry (14), Agnes (9) and James (7). They were then living at 33 Lark Hill Road and John was earning his living as a leather dresser. Nothing else is known of the family, except that John is believed to have died in 1907, aged 43.
James enlisted on 26 February 1916, leaving the family home which was then 2 Moorhouse Street, Cheadle Heath, and was assigned to the Marines. After training, he went overseas on 28 June 1916, spending several months in the reserve areas before joining the 1st Battalion on 10 November. There will have been no gradual easing into the rigours of trench life for James as, on the same day, the Battalion started another tour of duty in the trenches at Hamel in the heart of the Somme battlefield and, only two days later, James will have had his first experience of “going over the top”, when the Battalion attacked. Three days later, the Battalion had been reduced from its initial strength of 490 to just 138. 53 men had been killed, 88 were missing and the remainder were wounded
The Battle of Arras had opened on 9 April 1917 but the Marines had not, so far, been involved in any of the attacks. However, on the 25th, they moved to the front line near Gavrelle, ready for an attack on the 28th. The Battalion’s War Diary records the attack with scant details “Bn. attacked on sector left of GAVRELLE -OPPY Line at 4.25am & gained objective but was driven out by counter attacks.”
It is hardly surprising that the details are scant as there was almost no-one left to record the attack.1st Royal Marines had all but ceased to exist as a fighting unit. The Battalion had attacked on schedule but had come up against thick lines of barbed wire across No Man’s Land which had not been cut by the artillery bombardment. As the men struggled to get through, they became easy targets for the German machine gunners.
It was not until 7.15am that news started to arrive as wounded men managed to make their way back to the British trench. It appeared that the Marines had captured their objective but were then hit hard by a counter attack from the direction of Oppy Wood. There had been desperate hand-to-hand fighting and many Marines had been killed or taken prisoner. By about 9am, those who had managed to escape were back in their jumping-off trench fighting hard to hold off the Germans. Isolated pockets of men were still fighting further forward, but were surrounded by the German counter attackers. These pockets were soon overcome, but the troops in the trench held out until they were relieved by reinforcements the next day.
James was amongst many originally posted as missing but nothing was ever heard of him again. It was not until December that there was an official presumption that he must have been killed.